Culture, Italian writers

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri’s Passionately Written Books and his Life

Dante Alighieri was born in 1268 in Florence, to a prestigious and powerful family. While still young his mother passed away, leaving the vulnerable boy in the capable and steady hands of his father Alighiero II. He took great pains in teaching him the meaning of duty and honor, leaning on a family friend called Brunetto Latini for help. Latini was not only a famous scholar and politician, but also a poet,  possibly influencing the young Dante in ways that would not be evident for years. Unfortunately his father died in the early 1280’s, leaving Dante alone except for his half-brothers and sisters acquired from his father’s second marriage.

Dante  Alighieri
Dante Alighieri, in a portrait by Sandro Botticelli (wikimedia)

When Dante was only twelve he met the daughter of the Portinari family, neighbors to the Alighieris. The daughter’s name was Beatrice, and even though Dante had already been betrothed to another woman named Gemma Donati he fell head-over-heels in love with nine-year old Beatrice. She had already been promised to another man, however, as was the custom of that time. While they both went their separate ways and married their promised spouses, it was Beatrice the object of Dante’s affections both in The Divine Comedy and in other poetry. He never mentions his wife Gemma, in any of his works.

But politics was never far from public life in those days, and Dante was no exception. He fought with the Arentines at Campadino in 1289 and in 1290 was at the Fortress of Caprona as it fell, a casualty of the inner political warfare that continually plagued Italian politics.

Beatrice died in 1290 at the tender age of 24, leaving Dante alone. Gemma had left him two years after their marriage, in 1285 to become another man’s second wife, leaving Dante bereft of either woman’s company. Distraught, he began to write poetry dedicated to his dead love’s memory, filled with references to the sweet, pure love he had found with Beatrice, but now lost to him forever.

During this time he also had to fulfill many duties as were due to his family’s status, performing them well enough that he was chosen in 1300 to be one of the Priori for two months – a major ruling position. A year later he became the superintendent of roads and road repair, a respectable position and a potentially powerful one for such a young man.

But his sudden rise to power also created many enemies for him. Dante was a member of the White Guelph (also known as Bianchi) political faction that fought constantly with the Black Guelph (the Neri)  group. In 1302 Dante found himself charged with political corruption and was condemned to die by being burnt to death. He accepted being banned from his native city as a way to stay alive, but it was a severe punishment for someone who loved his city dearly.

Banned from entering Florence ever again, Dante Alighieri moved around the country from city to city – we know he was at Padua, Verona and Arezzo as well as visiting many other cities in his wanderings.

But not too long before his death due to malaria in December of 1321 he completed the Divine Comedy, the work for which he is best known. Parts of it had been revealed to the public as early as 1312, creating quite a stir among the reading audience. While many poets had chosen to remain vague on their political bent and did not include them in their works, Dante had charged in and placed many of the living and dead in various positions in Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. Needless to say, some did not appreciate where they ended up.

The premise of the Divine Comedy is that the poet awakes in a dark wood and is unable to find his way. The famous Virgil comes to him and offers to escort him through Hell and Purgatory in order to reach his true love – Beatrice, who represents human salvation and revelation and who will take him to Paradise. Of course, during the trip Dante makes many political and scathing remarks about who has ended up in Hell and Purgatory – including many Popes and more than one politician who was still alive at the time!

One of the first and best efforts at political comedy, the Divine Comedy became an immediate classic for both the religious reader and the political commentator who both found something to enjoy. From corrupt politicians to old friends past and present, Dante left no stone unturned in detailing what he perceived as false judgments and misgivings in the society he was living in.

Over time the references have grown stale of course, but you can still refer to the footnotes in most volumes to see the historical context of the names included; laid out by Dante in various levels of Hell and Purgatory. Needless to say time has borne him out on a variety of decisions on where people were placed.

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri meets Beatrice in Florence, in a painting by Henry Holiday (wikimedia)

An interesting story is how the final part of the Comedy, Paradise, was retrieved. Dante had died of malaria not long after finishing this last part of his masterpiece and his sons were looking for the manuscript with little success. Dante supposedly appeared to Pietro, his son, in a dream and detailed where to find these final writings – hidden behind a mat that was hanging on a wall in another house where Dante had lived. Flush with excitement Pietro raced to the house and found the manuscript right where his ghostly father had told him. Without this final part the Divine Comedy would have never been seen as a completed work and a major piece of poetry would have been lost to the ages.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is an enlightening view into the political and spiritual time that the author lived in, but also a reflection of his belief in true love and of his ability to put that down on paper. Whether you read it for the political jibes or the breathtaking descriptions of the Circles of Hell or the beauty of Paradise, this famous work is a must-read for everyone.

By Sheryl Nantus

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